What’s a healthy breakfast?

Monique Tello, MD, MPH

Contributing Editor

If you asked someone to list some typical regular weekday morning breakfast foods, they’d probably rattle off things like cereal, toast, bagels, muffins, pancakes, waffles, and maybe eggs and bacon.

But here’s the deal. Breakfast is how we break our overnight fast, and for many people, breaking fast doesn’t have to happen first thing in the morning. That’s right, folks: breakfast does NOT have to happen first thing in the morning. If you are not hungry when you wake up, that is normal, and you do not need to eat. That old myth about “revving up your metabolism” with food first thing was largely created by breakfast cereal manufacturers.

Overnight fasting: Good for weight control and easy to do

Evidence is growing in support of fasting for weight control, weight loss, and better metabolic health.

An overnight fast could look like this: You stop eating before nightfall, somewhere between 5 and 8 pm. (It’s a good idea to avoid eating anything in the two to three hours before sleep anyway.) Then, you do not eat until 16 hours later, somewhere between 9 am and 12 pm. Only liquids, like water, coffee and tea without sweeteners, seltzer, and even broth are allowed during the fast.

You’ve now completed a 16-hour fast, and you slept through most of it! Your meals occur only during an eight-hour period of the day, and you make these healthy meals, with lots of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, healthy fats, legumes, and whole grains. This type of overnight fasting is called circadian rhythm intermittent fasting, and is linked to lower blood sugar and insulin levels, as well as healthy weight loss. Most people who try overnight fasting find this a pretty easy routine to maintain.

Some people (like growing children or people on certain medications) do not need to fast this long, and should have a healthy meal before their school or workday.

Break fast with low glycemic foods

Regardless of what time of day you break our overnight fast, scientific evidence shows that all humans have improved cognitive performance and more sustained energy from meals that don’t spike our blood sugars, so meals with a lower glycemic load. What does this mean?

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Nutrition Source breaks down the glycemic index and load of many foods.

Basically, the glycemic load gives us an idea of how much a certain food will cause our blood sugar to rise, and for breakfast, the lower, the better. A low glycemic load is under 10; medium, 11 to 19; and high is over 20. The best breakfast meal has a low glycemic load.

While it’s important to be aware of the glycemic load of the foods you eat, you don’t have to memorize the numbers. You can count on most plants (fruits and vegetables), legumes (like peas, beans, lentils), nuts and seeds, and whole grains to have a low glycemic load!

Foods that contain little or no carbohydrate, like eggs, nuts, and meats, have a glycemic index and load of close to zero. Does this mean that’s what we should eat? Not necessarily. See, they also have no fiber, nor any other important plant nutrients.

So what are some healthy breakfast choices? In a previous Harvard Health blog I told you what my family and I eat for breakfast. Here are some easy options to fuel you for your busy day:

  • plain yogurt, fruit, and nuts
  • oatmeal, fruit, nuts
  • whole wheat or rye toast with nut butter
  • black beans and tortilla (corn or whole wheat).

And if you enjoy eggs in the morning, you can try this Frying Pan Frittata. This recipe works very well with frozen veggies, and variations are commonly served as dinner at our house. For a breakfast, this can serve two to four people.

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Frying Pan Frittata

If you enjoy eggs in the morning, you can try this frittata on the stovetop. This recipe works very well with frozen veggies, and variations are commonly served as dinner at our house. For a breakfast, this can serve two to four people. 

Course Breakfast

Ingredients

  • ½ small onion, chopped
  • 1 cup red and green peppers, sliced thin or chopped small
  • 4 cups spinach and/or other leafy greens, torn or chopped (1 cup if using frozen)
  • 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano and/or basil (or two tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs)
  • 4 eggs

Instructions

  1. Use a medium-sized frying pan over medium heat and heat oil until shiny.

  2. Add the onion, stirring until just soft

  3. Add the peppers.

  4. Stir until the onions and peppers are very soft and just browning.

  5. Add the spinach/greens to the pan and stir until wilted and hot.

  6. Crack the eggs into a bowl and whisk them up with a fork until they’re uniformly yellow and a little foamy.

  7. Pour your eggs over all the veggies, turn the heat on low, and cover the pan.

  8. Shake the pan a few times during cooking, which more evenly distributes the eggs and prevents sticking.

  9. Check frittata after three to four minutes.

  10. If the eggs look done, loosen it with a spatula to make sure there is no runniness. If there is, cook thirty seconds to a minute longer, covered.

  11. Using a spatula, slide frittata gently onto a large plate and serve. We slice this up like a pizza.

Sources

Metabolic Effects of Intermittent Fasting. Annual Review of Nutrition, August 2017.

Time-restricted feeding for the prevention and treatment of cardiometabolic disorders. The Journal of Physiology, April 25, 2017.

Daily Eating Patterns and Their Impact on Health and Disease. Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, February 2016.

Breakfast and behavior in morning tasks: Facts or fads? Journal of Affective Disorders, December 15, 2017.

The effect of breakfast composition and energy contribution on cognitive and academic performance: A systematic review. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, August 2014.

Higher breakfast glycaemic load is associated with increased metabolic syndrome risk, including lower HDL-cholesterol concentrations and increased TAG concentrations, in adolescent girls. British Journal of Nutrition, December 28, 2014.

A low glycemic load breakfast can attenuate cognitive impairments observed in middle aged obese females with impaired glucose tolerance. Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases, October 2014.

The Benefits of Breakfast Cereal Consumption: A Systematic Review of the Evidence Base. Advances in Nutrition, September 1, 2014.

Comments:

  1. Bradley Pike

    Why not try a low-carb diet. It is a diet that restricts carbohydrates, such as those found in sugary foods, pasta and bread. It is high in protein, fat and healthy vegetables.

    There are many different types of low-carb diets, and studies show that they can cause weight loss and improve health.

    You can find more information here,
    https://www.peaceloverecipes.com/

  2. bradmeiser

    This is a test reply.

  3. amy

    I don’t have the habit of having breakfast in the morning, i just have a glass of milk and that’s it, but after accidentally coming on this post and reading about the importance of breakfast and effects of long overnight fasting, I am really worried about my health. So I will try to change this thing and have breakfast.. This piece of information that you have shared is really very important . Thanks for this.

  4. Fina Thomas

    Can I suggest that you also look at the research into gallstone formation with regular overnight fasting of more than 13 hours? Ref Dr Valter Longo’s work on benefits and risks of different types of fasting.

  5. karl young

    Hey,

    Thanks for the info. As a parent who has recently started putting on weight i found this piece much more useful the the standard info you get on the parenting forums.

    Also love the frying Frying Pan Frittata, defo want to give that a try.

    • Monique Tello, MD, MPH
      Monique Tello, MD, MPH

      Sorry for the delay, Just wanted to say thank for the positive feedback! I also was a parent putting on weight, and lost fifty pounds several years ago, eating much this way. Let us know how it goes for you!

  6. Anonymous

    How can you ethically recommend an egg based breakfast as healthy? There is overwhelming research associating eating eggs several types of cancer.

    Sources:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20042525
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8061589
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26100814
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24944063

    Many other publications can be found on the topic.

    • Monique Tello, MD, MPH
      Monique Tello, MD, MPH

      …and just as much research suggesting that egg consumption in moderation is not associated with negative health outcomes. I agree (and the research shows) that the best plan is a plant-based diet that minimizes animal protein overall, especially red and processed meats. It’s OK to be omnivore, as long as the mainstay is plants.
      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29955690

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